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book review

Hand-Drying in America

Ben Katchor deserves to become an adjective.

His work is Katchorian and nothing else. Critics earn their bread by finding apt comparisons, but finding useful analogies for Katchor's work is an elusive task. The cartoonist is a bizarre melange of competing tendencies: His deft weaving of half-believable fantasies suggests Jorge Luis Borges, his street-level alertness to urban life recalls Jane Jacobs, his verbal dexterity at describing sensual experiences echoes Vladimir Nabokov, and his political concern over branding and globalization evokes Naomi Klein.

But perhaps the fairest conclusion is that Katchor illustrates William Hazlitt's observation that it "is easy to describe second-rate talents, because they fall into a class and enlist under a standard; but first-rate powers defy calculation or comparison, and can be defined only by themselves. They are sui generis, and make the class to which they belong."

Brooklyn born, Katchor is an anomaly, a New Yorker who constantly experiences the city with the hyper-alert eyes of a visitor. For more than four decades now, he has crafted his own special genre of comic strips dealing with the history and architecture of an imaginary New York, created with the goal of helping us appreciate the real city whose sheer physical and informational density defies human comprehension.

Katchor is blessed and cursed with an inability to shut himself off from the sensory assault of his native city. This marks him off from many of his fellow New Yorkers, who have learned that living in one of the world's great capitals of sensory overkill requires the ability to tune out the ceaseless chorus of background noise and millions of jostling and sometimes abrasive fellow citizens. Katchor belongs to the line of modernist artists whose intense sensitivity to sensory experience was an outgrowth of their experience in bustling big cities. Just as Joyce had his Dublin, Proust his Paris, and Nabokov his St. Petersburg, Katchor has his New York.

This urban focus also aligns him with the great tradition of cartooning about city life that runs from Honoré Daumier to Winsor McCay to Steve Ditko to Chris Ware. Modern sequential cartooning came of age with the rise of the industrial city, with comics being a perfect art for deft-handed flaneurs to record street life. Rectangular panels, the very building block of the comics page, call to mind the more literal blocks that make up skyscrapers. When we peer into the panels of a comics page, the experience is not dissimilar to peeping in on neighbours in an adjoining apartment building.

Hand-Drying in America, Katchor's latest collection of cartoons, brings together more than 150 of his recent stories dealing with the minutia of urban life.

A story called The Office Building Demystified offers a clear example of Katchor's method and concern. It opens with a woman complaining about the facelessness of the modern office building, where "there's no way of knowing what goes on inside."

This lamentation sets up the cue for one of Katchor's patented explainer characters – here, as elsewhere, a dumpy, stooped middle-aged man – to offer the lowdown on what we're missing: "Within six months of occupancy, however anonymous the building's facade, the business affairs of each tenant begin to leave their mark – it's just a matter of knowing what to look for." In a succession of panels that offer a skewed street-side view of the city, we're given examples: "Here you can see a palpable greasy sheen of the lower floors of this building which houses the corporate headquarters of the Palsy Group: A national distributor of processed sandwich meats.… The cracked concrete surface of an uninviting public plaza announces the presence of a failing software firm."

On a literal level, this urban exegesis is absurd, but as a series of playful theories it functions like one of Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories , taking something real and forcing us to look at it more closely by giving it a fanciful history. Katchor loves to zoom in on the everyday objects that we easily ignore: washroom hand dryers, the riot-gates that protect downtown stores, the folding chairs in a bingo hall.

Katchor is the poet of the mundane, the bard of the grubby, the lyricist of the half-seen world. As befits his focus on the ignored, his art rejects the goal of illustrational realism and instead is deliberately asymmetrical, often showing his people and places from unusual angles, as if the viewer were perched like a bird or had the upward glance of a small child. Because his great subject is perception and misperception, what we see and what we miss, Katchor has fashioned a foggy style that forces us to constantly decipher his images, which exist in ironic tension with his text.

Critics have often mistakenly labelled Katchor a nostalgist who conjures up a half-remembered New York. In fact, he is a satirical fantasist who is imagining an alternative New York in order to sharpen our awareness of the actual city. Or, more simply, he's a supremely Katchorian artist.

Jeet Heer's book In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly's Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman will be published by Coach House Books this fall .